Comment // Constitution

Dorries spreads disinformation as the UK Government continues to attack democracy

The UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, has been spreading disinformation for months. She has steadfastly maintained that the forthcoming Online Safety Act is all about keeping children safe online. In reality, the Online Safety Bill is designed to silence government critics and impose widespread government censorship of the internet.

Speaking in February 2022, Dorries said:

This Government said it would legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while enshrining free speech, and that’s exactly what we are going to do.

This is just one of many similarly false and misleading statements that Dorries has made. Whether she has done so wittingly or not is irrelevant. The effect is to deceive the public. The Online Safety Bill is a full frontal assault on free speech.

The whole point of the Online Safety Bill is to give the Government control of social media, ensuring that only their official messaging is promoted online. Any information that is not approved by the UK Government can be quickly identified, isolated and cut out of the search results before it finds its way on to the social media feeds of a wider audience. That is the true purpose of the proposed Online Safety legislation, and it always has been.

Official government propaganda from the likes of the BBC and the Guardian will be protected and distributed by the social media companies. This partly explains why the mainstream media are such enthusiastic promoters of the legislative changes. Any content that questions the official truth, as approved by the Government or the corporate state, such as the kind of information regularly reported by UK Column, will effectively be censored off the internet.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid, the leaders of the big NGOs like Peter Wanless of the NSPCC, and the CEO of Britain's other largest children's charity, Barnardo's, Javed Khan, all said that the proposed Online Safety Act was about keeping children safe online and fighting terrorism. Like so many others in positions of “authority”, all of them were either ignorant about the purpose of the legislation or deliberately misleading the people.


We told you so

UK Column has consistently highlighted the censorship agenda. When former Prime Minister Theresa May launched the Online Harms White Paper in 2019, the UK Column was among the first to warn of the threat it posed. 

There is no longer any room for doubt. Despite official claims, recent statements make it abundantly clear what the Online Safety Bill is really about. Any further claims by anyone that the objective is to keep children safe online can and should be dismissed as propagandist drivel.

Dorries revealed the true nature of the UK Government's ambition to censor free speech and the internet when she spoke about the plans to link the Online Harms Bill with the National Security Bill:

We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets to use the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded. That's why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.

You will note that this has nothing whatsoever to do with protecting children. It is about the Government summarily decreeing what it claims to be "disinformation" and then working with its social media corporate “partners” to ensure that all information is withheld from the public unless it is first approved by the Government. 

The UK Government has no jurisdiction over the activities of any other government, unless through agreed processes for the judicial enforcement of international law. Therefore, the idea that it can stop what it calls the "malign influence" of foreign powers—for which we can currently insert Russia, China and Iran—through legislation, such as the proposed National Security Act, is asinine.

All it can do is limit its own population's access to information. Ultimately, that is what all such legislative proposals aim to do. They are not weapons in a conflict between nation states; they are government psychological weapons directed squarely against their own populations.

The competition between nation states is more akin to a race than a fight. They are all seeking to limit their own population's freedom of speech and expression. Whether through legislation, the appointment of regulators, or the establishment of powerful government "advisory" committees, the trajectory is the same everywhere. The people are not to be trusted, and their speech—and thus their thoughts—must be controlled.

For example, the US Administration initially created the Disinformation Governance Board (DGB), in secret, to monitor American citizens' online communications and to work with the social media companies to "take down" offending content. When its presence became public knowledge, the DGB suffered an apparently ignominious takedown itself. But appearances can be deceptive.

The White House is determined to control the information US citizens are allowed to access. The censorship agenda rolls on, with the newly announced Task Force To Address Online Harassment and Abuse.

Similarly, the Russian State Duma passed additional amendments to the Russian Federation's criminal code that made it an imprisonable offence, of up to 15 years, for spreading whatever the Kremlin called "fake news" concerning the Russian military or the war in Ukraine. Russian citizens who speak out, to stop the war, can be sentenced for up to three years. Russian officials have already been jailed for criticising Russian defence policy.


What governments fear

Whether in the UK, US, Russia or elsewhere, the intention of these laws and new regulatory bodies is not to stop foreign states spreading disinformation but rather to shut down domestic criticism of governments. Governments don’t fear each other; they fear us.

In the UK, the National Security Bill establishes a concept called "foreign interference". This makes it an offence for a foreign power to "improperly interfere with the UK’s democracy and civil society through covert influence, disinformation, and attacks against our electoral processes".

Of course, "foreign powers" couldn't care less what the UK Government chooses to designate as an online "disinformation" offence. This isn't a proposed law aimed at enemies overseas. It is aimed directly at silencing the free speech of British citizens and independent journalists. It is the UK Government itself that is attacking our democracy and democratic ideals, not "malign foreign actors".

Dorries is among those who supports the proposal to link the National Security Bill with the Online Safety Bill, making "foreign interference" a priority Schedule 7 offence under the imminent Online Safety Act. As the proposed law stands, this will enable the UK Government to go after its domestic critics: first by working with social media companies to censor their content, but also, it seems, through possible politically-motivated prosecutions.

"Foreign interference" is defined as foreign propaganda and mis-/disinformation efforts which are allegedly intended to:

[. . .] undermine UK interests, our institutions, political system, or our rights, and ultimately prejudice our national security.


Jellyfish legislation

These ill-defined and all-encompassing terms allow the UK Government and its lawyers huge scope for some creative interpretations. Apparently, for a prosecution to be successful, there will be no need to prove that the offending critic is actually working for, or even influenced by, an actual foreign power. The so-called foreign power condition simply states that an individual is within the scope of the legislation if the Government decides that they said or wrote something:

[. . .] with the intention to benefit a foreign power — this includes cases where a person’s primary motivation is, for example, financial but a person also intends, or acts in virtually certain knowledge, that the foreign power will benefit.

The general legal definition of "intention" is:

[W]ill; purpose; design. [. . .]
When used with reference to civil and criminal responsibility, a person who contemplates any result, as not unlikely to follow from a deliberate act of his own, may be said to intend that result. [. . .]
Intention is often confounded with motive.

While it is common to consider the "intention" of an alleged criminal act, it is not the same as establishing "motive". It is instead a subjective assessment of a person's thoughts.

By definition, there cannot be any evidence proving what someone thinks or does not think. Thoughts can only be speculatively inferred from actions (mens rea). Yet a suspected "thought" is enough for the UK Government to find that a critic has failed its "foreign interference" test, under the proposed National Security Act.

As highlighted by the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Chris Philp, linkage between the two pieces of new legislation will have a devastating impact upon online free speech:

This amendment will mean that online platforms need to act against foreign interference in line with their safety duties on illegal content, where it meets all three limbs of the foreign interference offence. These are as follows:

  • a person engages in conduct for, on behalf of, or with intent to benefit a foreign power


    How we will be muzzled

    We need to be clear about the nature of the UK Government’s assault on democracy. The system will work like this:

    If an online media outlet—UK Column, for example—produces a news report or online article which fiercely criticises the Government and/or government policy (such as this one), the British state is claiming the power to comprehensively censor that news item or report. The Government can, and probably will, assert that the UK Column’s report undermines "UK interests", or its "political systems", or prejudices "national security" in some way. UK Column may well be made out to be a Kremlin stooge.

    Under Schedule 7 of the imminent Online Safety Act, UK Column's journalism will be categorised as "foreign interference". This will not be because the UK Column actually works for, represents or is supported by a foreign power—nor because it has any intention to undermine either Britain's society or its polity—but simply because the Government has arbitrarily decided that the UK Column's intent (thought) was to "benefit a foreign power".

    The parameters of the censorship grid will be defined through secondary legislation after the powers under the Act are created. The online safety regulator, Ofcom, will, in accordance with that secondary legislation, set the limits of allowed free speech and expression on the internet. The search engines and the social media platforms will then be required to enforce Ofcom's demands, made on behalf of the state.

    This won't require armies of censors to examine every individual piece of online content. Technology renders such efforts nugatory. In order for the search engines and social media companies to meet their new duty to “keep users safe online”, they can deploy algorithms to automatically censor all of the information that the Government doesn't like.

    It will be up to the likes of Google, Twitter and Meta (formerly Facebook) to program the bots and the crawlers that will ensure that the "wrong" content doesn't get shared by anyone. In our example, UK Column will still be able to post the content—but it won't be able to share it via social media or be found on search engines. Nor will the UK Column's audience be able to share the report with their friends and families.


    Throttling time

    The alternative news outlets that have thrived in the new online media environment will be suffocated, finding it increasingly difficult to reach new followers and potential subscribers. The Government's censorship will erode their ability to communicate with an active audience, who, in turn, will be unable to engage with their content and discuss the issues raised.

    By contrast, the corporate-controlled mainstream media—which, as highlighted in the Cairncross Review, has singularly failed to adapt its business model to the internet age—will be assisted, both financially and through legislation, to be the public's only source of online news, current affairs, political analysis and opinion; thereby effectively handing control of online information to the state.

    We can already see that any information that the Government files under "foreign interference" will be cut out of online searches and shut down on social media. We can also identify some other targets for the approaching state censorship regime. For example, the Government is eager to silence any criticism of vaccines:

    The duty of care will require platforms to have robust and proportionate measures to deal with harms that could cause significant physical or psychological harm to children, such as misinformation and disinformation about vaccines.

    As pointed out by respected doctors and scientists from around the world, the reasons for questioning the Covid-19 vaccines are well-founded. The medical and scientific evidence that raises significant concern about their safety and efficacy is now overwhelming. But, according to the Government, all this science and medical opinion is "disinformation". In disregarding these early warnings—without investigation—the Government is showing a total lack of interest in the health and safety of children. 


    Parliament redundant

    Under the forthcoming Act, the Secretary of State—currently Nadine Dorries—will use secondary legislation to define whatever the government wants to label as "disinformation". Evidently, questioning vaccines is one such topic due for censorship.

    The Government has the temerity to claim:

    We will protect freedom of expression online by ensuring that the framework is risk-based and focused on systems and processes [. . .] regulation will not prevent adults from accessing or posting legal content, nor require companies to remove specific pieces of legal content.

    This is utterly disingenuous. The “systems and processes” will be the software developed by the Big Tech corporations that will scrape the content for offending keywords and semantic indexes—before AI censors it off their platforms and search results. If it isn’t in the formulation that the Government has prescribed as “safe” for the population to know, it will never appear where it can be seen.

    By far the easiest way to protect freedom of speech and expression online is not to restrict it. Beyond laws that curtail the legitimate harm caused by criminal incitement to violence or crime, the notion that you can protect free speech by regulating it is paradoxical gibberish.

    The Government, and its representatives like Nadine Dorries, are spreading disinformation. The eventual Online Safety Act will require social media companies, search engines, communication apps—and other online spaces where citizens regularly exchange information and ideas—effectively to silence whatever the Government chooses to censor.

    The Government has no intention of protecting freedom of speech or expression online. It is deceiving the public, and any parliamentarian that votes for this pernicious legislation is choosing to bring British democracy to an end.